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Why People Give

Why People Give
There is a growing body of research connecting happiness to volunteerism and contributing to something that is bigger than yourself. In many cases, that means giving to charitable organizations. We discuss why people give and what draws us to give to one group over another.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): There are stories you come across about individuals who do remarkable things to help others. Some people start free kitchens to feed the homeless, or organize relief aid for a natural disaster. There are people who start small schools for kids in depressed areas of the world, or volunteer to teach computer literacy in a nursing home around the corner. Here at KPBS, we hear a lot of those stories and it makes us wonder: how do people choose the good works they decide to do? What is it that takes a small impulse to do some good, and turns it into a school or a shelter, or a cause that changes lives? We're beginning a series of shows to explore how people become inspired to help others and to meet some San Diegans who are deeply involved in their own good works. Joining me to give us a perspective on the nonprofit organizations operating in San Diego County and to help shed some light on why people choose to give to one organization over another is Pat Libby. She is Director of the Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research at the University of San Diego School of Leadership and Education Sciences. Pat, welcome back to These Days.

PAT LIBBY (Director, Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research, University of San Diego): Thanks. Thanks for having me.


CAVANAUGH: And we want to hear from you. Do you donate to a nonprofit organization or volunteer your time? Which organization are you passionate about? And what drew you to it? Give us a call. Tell us your story, 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Pat, you’ve been in the nonprofit world for a long time dealing with people giving to charities and organizations, I wonder what reasons do people give for donating their time and money to charity?

LIBBY: Well, a lot of times it’s because someone has a direct relationship with that cause. You may know someone who had breast cancer so you’re going to walk in a three-day walk or donate money to that cause. Or you may be involved in your church and through the church teachings or your synagogue teachings you’re exposed to hunger and homelessness. So many times people give because they have had an experience with that type of organization or they think that there but for the grace of God go I, and they feel compassionate about giving.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering about the, as I say, the stories you’ve heard. Is it something that comes on some people like a thunderbolt or is it just a feeling of giving that increases over time?

LIBBY: Well, I don’t – I think it varies from individual to individual about how people have these experiences. You know, you might have somebody who takes a Junior Abroad program in college and then says, holy smokes, there are people who need me in Africa or Latin America or wherever they’ve been. So I think it varies from person to person.

CAVANAUGH: As I say, we are taking your calls. Join us in this conversation about which organizations you’re passionate about, and what motivates you to give. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. And we’re also taking your stories online if you’d like to do it that way. That’s I’m wondering, Pat, what do you hear about somebody choosing one organization over another especially if those organizations are really pretty similar in their objective and their mission?


LIBBY: Well, it’s interesting because in San Diego County, for instance, Maureen, we have 9700 nonprofits, which is amazing. Although only 3200 of those have annual revenues that are basically above $25,000.


LIBBY: But still there are a lot of organizations that you can choose from, and in this economic climate we’re hearing a lot of input from funders saying that some of you need to merge or collaborate better because there are just fewer resources to go around. So I think when people are choosing, I know funders say to me all the time we have so many organizations that are working on, for example, literacy. We have two food banks in San Diego. So there are organizations that are doing similar things but occasionally, or very often, I should say, they have different approaches. And so an organization, or an individual rather, might choose one organization over another because of the strategy that they take in working with people.

CAVANAUGH: And since we are going to be talking about nonprofits, tell us – give us an idea so that everyone knows what a nonprofit organization is.

LIBBY: Oh, I’m so glad you said that because we have done research that has found that almost a third of San Diegans have no idea what a nonprofit is…


LIBBY: …and that is amazing to us. So a nonprofit organization, the basic definition is a legal one and we often joke it’s the only sector that’s described by what it’s not. And what a nonprofit doesn’t do is it doesn’t distribute any of its profits to individuals. So even, ironically, people think that a food co-op might be a nonprofit but it’s not because a food co-op distributes shares among all the people who volunteer. So there are actually 27 different kinds of nonprofits. We don’t think of country clubs or yacht clubs as being nonprofits but they are…


LIBBY: …but they’re not 501(c)(3)s and 501(c)(3)s, which are both charities and foundations are the only kind of nonprofits where you and I can write a check and receive a tax deductible donation for it.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Pat Libby. She’s director of the Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research at the USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences. And we’re also asking for our listeners to give us a call and tell us about what motivates them to give their time and their money to charitable causes or even to start some charitable organizations themselves. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. Let’s take a call because our lines are really heating up. John is calling us from La Jolla. Good morning, John, and welcome to These Days.

JOHN (Caller, La Jolla): Well, good morning. Thanks for taking the call. I started volunteering somewhat by accident. I had a huge job here in San Diego and it was kind of our mission to not only work hard but to get involved in some sort of social cause. And then a catastrophic car crash put me out of that job where I was permanently disabled and I went to an organization called the AIDS Foundation back then which then closed down and I took the little program that I started to an organization called Being Alive, which is for people with HIV and AIDS. And just by my little self, I started it. I went to them…


JOHN: …and I said, would you like me to do this and I started a program where I get tickets to every event in town and we give them to the clients—we call them clients—people with HIV and AIDS. And in the 12 years that I’ve done it, I’m – I’ve got – and we keep track. I’ve gotten over almost $2 million worth of tickets to give away. It just goes to show what just one little person can do.

CAVANAUGH: Right, John, now before you had your accident and before you got involved in organizing this, were you very involved with charities before?

JOHN: No, you know, I really wasn’t. I always had this kind of feeling like one should and I have to tell you that since this has happened, I have two kids, one 19, one 17, and I have indoctrinated them into that being something that is not almost something you should do but something that’s almost required to do, that it’s almost like your duty to do this. Kind of in the thinking of how the Peace Corps was thought of back when.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I appreciate – thank you so much for your phone call and thanks for your good works, John. We all appreciate it. Kate is calling us from Bay Park. Good morning, Kate, and welcome to These Days. Oh, I’m sorry, Jason is calling from Clairemont. Good morning, Jason.

JASON (Caller, Clairemont): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I heard that religious organizations provide like half or more than half of the charity in the United States and so I wanted to find out if that’s true. And it seems that actually in history that religious organizations have provided that safety net that today government tends to provide a lot of but when we didn’t have the government to do that, it was actually religious organizations that did that. Could the guest please comment on that?

CAVANAUGH: Sure. Thank you for the phone call. Do you understand the question?

LIBBY: Yes, I do. And, you know, it’s an interesting question, Jason, and we really can’t track it for you and I’ll tell you why. The IRS does not require religious organizations to file tax returns. Nonprofits file tax returns that are called 990s and some religious organizations do file them and others don’t. So because of that, we don’t have a good handle on how many religious organizations are out there in the United States. Now, many religious organizations do provide social services and other charities but I really couldn’t say that most social services and charities were provided by religious organizations. And I would think not but I just, you know, you can’t say for sure.

CAVANAUGH: Right. We’re taking your calls about charity and giving and volunteering and what motivated you to start spending your time and your money to help out other people. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call or, please, go online, post your comments, tell us your story at Pat, I’m wondering, when people find a cause that they personally feel passionately about and perhaps they want to start an organization, like a nonprofit to raise money, is that an easy thing to do?

LIBBY: Well, it’s really not. People think of nonprofits as being easier to run than a for-profit business but I believe that in many ways they’re much more complicated. And one of the things that we teach our students, and I should say this, that we offer a master’s degree in nonprofit leadership and management. And we are one of about 250 universities around the United States that offer graduate education in nonprofit studies and that’s because it’s not your grandmother’s nonprofit anymore. It’s becoming very complicated in terms of not only the legal requirements, raising money, working with volunteers and a board, being accountable to the media, being transparent, it’s very, very complex so we have a lot of people applying to our program or coming to our program who have the best of intentions. They started a nonprofit and said, holy smokes, I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants for, you know, five or ten years, now I need to come to school and figure out how to really do it and do it well because it’s a very, very complicated business.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. And, well, right now, which caller should I go to? Jason is calling from Clairemont. Good morning, Jason. Welcome to These Days.

JASON (Caller, Clairemont): Good morning.


JASON: Hi. I’m calling – I work with a volunteer organization called Fresh Start Surgical Gifts. I just wanted to tell you guys why I got involved.

CAVANAUGH: Sure. Please.

JASON: I work in the medical field and it just kind of fit my job specialty. It’s a very important part of my advancement requirements in the military to be active in the community and it just kind of fell in my lap and I worked with them a couple of times to try and get involved and I loved it so much that I just continued over the past few years. And it’s a great organization and it works out of Rady’s Children’s Hospital to provide surgical treatment for children with deformities.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And so what do you do for this organization, Jason?

JASON: I’m a operating room technician so I set up all the instruments and hand them to the surgeon, assist the surgeon throughout the procedure.

CAVANAUGH: And how much of your time do you donate to this?

JASON: I recently got back from a deployment so I haven’t been as active as I’d like to. But I’d say I’m – They work about eight months or nine months out of the year and I usually volunteer maybe three or four of those months.

CAVANAUGH: Now you say this is part of your mission as a member of the military but I’m wondering, is this giving back to you something that you didn’t anticipate?

JASON: Oh, definitely. Definitely. It’s great just to know that I’m doing a small part to help out in the big picture.

LIBBY: You know, it’s interesting, Jason and Maureen, we have had a couple of people come to our program who are Navy helicopter pilots.


LIBBY: And they flew relief missions in Band Aceh during the tsunami and they were distributing food and supplies to people and through that experience said, now I know what I want to do when I get out of the Navy. I want to do relief work. So it was through that giving back, that public service military experience that gave them an awakening you might say—you were asking earlier about what’s the epiphany…


LIBBY: …to work in the nonprofit sector. And Fresh Start is such a great organization. So that’s wonderful, Jason, that you are volunteering with them.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue hearing the stories of San Diegans who have decided to do good works and tell us why they’ve chosen what they’ve chosen and what it’s bringing to their lives. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And this is the first in a series of shows we’re planning to explore how people become inspired to help others, and in the process meet some San Diegans who are really deeply involved in doing good works, spending their time and their money to help other people here in San Diego and around the world. My guest is Pat Libby. She is director of the Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research at the University of San Diego School of Leadership and Education Sciences. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 but we’re also encouraging you to go online and post your stories at Let’s start right out with a call, if we can, Pat. And John is calling us from Clairemont. Good morning, John. Welcome to These Days. Hi, John, are you there? Good morning. Okay, Connie in Carmel Valley, how are you? Are you there?

CONNIE (Caller, Carmel Valley): I’m here. Thanks for taking my call.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, welcome to These Days, Connie. How can we help you?

CONNIE: I wanted to start off – I’m sure your guest has heard this before about the story about the little boy that was picking up starfish from the ocean and throwing them back in and somebody came up to him and asked him why he was doing it. It was so futile, he’d never be able to get all the starfish back into the ocean. And, you know, what difference did he make that he was taking care of the few that he was able to throw back in. And he said, it makes a big difference to that starfish. And I think that’s what we all need to remember when we’re doing work in our community is that you can’t completely fix everything but you can make a difference a little bit at a time and we all have that opportunity to do that. And in keeping with that theme, I want to say that when you do volunteer for a nonprofit, what I’ve found to be the most effective way to do that is to bring skills that you have to the opportunity that you’re looking into rather than just, you know, volunteering hours doing something that, you know, might be able to be done by anyone. If you have a particular skill that you’re good at and you can bring that as a volunteer to an organization, you can really make a huge impact.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for your call, Connie. I appreciate it. Allison is calling us from Tierrasanta. And, Allison, welcome to These Days.

ALLISON (Caller, Tierrasanta): Hi. I just wanted to call and say I got married at a very young age. I was 18 and my husband was 20 and now we’re 38 and 40. And he was in the Navy and the Navy gave me so many opportunities as a young woman to volunteer that I think it really helped to shape my life and helped me to find a sense of value and worth outside of an hourly dollar wage and I have since passed it on to my two girls who are now 17 and 15 that volunteering is a way to help find out who you are, what you can do and your worth to society is not just based on what you can make in a job that pays you.

CAVANAUGH: Allison, I’m wondering, in all of the volunteering you did, did you find a cause that you became passionate about?

ALLISON: Well, I’ve always loved to help other people to just to make themselves better and that’s one of the things that I have loved to do through the Navy. I’ve been an ombudsman for the Navy several times and it’s just helping to women (sic), helping women to understand what’s out there that can help them to better their lives, to educate themselves, and just to become a better person.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for your call. I really appreciate it. And, Pat, again with the military connection, you must hear that a lot.

LIBBY: I do hear that a lot. One of my students works for a great organization called United Through Reading and that organization has – tapes bedtime stories, so has one parent who is here reading stories – or, excuse me, the parent who’s deployed reading stories to the child who’s here. And they’re – they’ve also branched out to do that with parents who are incarcerated so that they can read bedtime stories to their children.


LIBBY: And it’s just – it’s a really, really wonderful thing. The one thing I do want to just say to the listeners overall is that there are so many wonderful organizations that are out there in the world and a lot of times I run across people who have so much passion and so much enthusiasm and they say I want to start a nonprofit that does this. And many times they don’t realize that a similar nonprofit already exists. And so I want to encourage people who are passionate about a cause to go do some homework, go do some Googling. I mean, we live in this great age of the information superhighway so you can go on the internet and you can really see what’s out there and find your passion many times in an organization that has already existed.

CAVANAUGH: Some people, though, Pat, just go straight up and go, you know, follow their own drummer and we actually heard from one of those people. Jacqueline Prairie sent us an e-mail to tell us about an organization that she actually started, and she’s on the line with us right now. Jacqueline, good morning and welcome to These Days.

JACQUELINE PRAIRIE (Founder, GAIO): Good morning, and it’s good to be on These Days. Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the organization that you started, is it called GAIO?

PRAIRIE: Yes, GAIO stands for Ghana Africa International Operations. Yes, there’s

CAVANAUGH: And what is the mission of GAIO?

PRAIRIE: It started because I have a background in IT and as well I went to Africa when I was around 20 and I wanted to help out, sort of bring a balance to our world. And so I developed a concept to bring – build a communication center basically enhancing education. The government provides education to the children but this would be like an afterschool program or make learning fun, show the importance of education. So I’m building a communications center in Akwatia, Ghana.

CAVANAUGH: Now have you always wanted to get involved in something like this? I mean, some sort of great charitable cause?

PRAIRIE: Absolutely. When I was over in Africa when I was around 20, not in Ghana itself but other countries and kingdoms, I just really felt that I needed to do something, I wanted to do something and I couldn’t figure what to do. And so many years later, and I’m going through, you know, sort of that thought process but, yes, for a very long time I wanted to do something and finally I’m doing it.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, why did you decide to focus on helping people in Africa. You know, some people say, you know, why go to Africa? There are people in San Diego that need help. Why is your focus overseas?

PRAIRIE: Yes, no, that’s a very good point. There’s many, many places around the world that are in need of our help. I don’t know. For some reason Africa has a calling for me. I’m beyond passionate about that continent, and I’m doing – I’m working there, I’m starting there. Maybe I’ll move on to another place as well but I’m helping 20,000 people and I guess I feel that if everybody just, you know, focuses on some area that’s in need of our help and helps that area, then I think overall we’ll be – it’ll be a better world, you know, with everybody’s help. With everybody helping any particular area, you know, at all.

CAVANAUGH: Do you find it hard to raise the money that – and get the information that you need in order to get this communications center off and running?

PRAIRIE: It’s a bit of a two-prong. You know, yes, there’s a lot of competition in a sense for raising money but I think my little story is such that I am making a difference and people can see that I have the build – I have the land now. I have the building plans. The walls are up. And there’s evidence that this little project is happening. And I guess I bring my passion along with it. And we’re having actually a fundraiser February 25th at a beautiful location called Fixtures. It’s a vision for living. It’s – if you’re thinking of renovating your home, you must stop in there first. It’s right off of Miramar, nine – The address actually is 9340 Dowd (sic) in San Diego. 92126 is the address (sic). We’re going to have a fun, fun fundraiser. It’s going to be – and also it’s a CD release party for Selassie, a Ghanaian musician who’s just amazing.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Well, Jacqueline, let me ask you my very last question to you. Why did you do this yourself instead of sort of like tacking your dream onto an established organization?

PRAIRIE: Yeah, no, that’s a good point. I guess I was a little bit focused in on a particular concept and I just felt that this could make a difference to so many – a direct difference to many people in a quick way. So and I’m sticking with this plan for now but who knows what the future will bring.

CAVANAUGH: Jacqueline Prairie, thank you so much and thanks for telling us your story. I appreciate it.

PRAIRIE: Oh, thank you. It’s a great honor to be on your show. Thank you for These Days.

CAVANAUGH: Pat Libby, let me get back to you. Here’s an example of someone that you’re saying, you know, basically she should look to the organizations that are already established. But, you know, some people just get these passions, these passions for helping people and they just need to go for it. What do you think?

LIBBY: Well, I think the passion is great and that’s what makes the world go ‘round. I also get a little concerned because you need to have staying power over the long term. I’ve been working in the nonprofit sector for more than 30 years and it’s hard, and it’s hard to sustain the momentum and it’s hard to do – to juggle all the spinning plates on sticks because it’s – people get jazzed about the program but they get less jazzed about writing the bylaws or managing the board or being in legal compliance with all the different things that they need to do, or learning how to properly maintain the finances of the organization and so on and so forth. So that’s why I generally recommend that people align themselves with an established organization if they can find one that is sympathetic and working on programs that dovetail, you know, with your dream and with your goal. And the other thing that I wanted to speak to, too, is I was talking with one of my students last night who works for the San Diego Hunger Coalition because you were talking about needs in Africa and needs locally. I’m sure that your listeners, because they’re so educated, have seen the continuing stories about the low – we have the fewest number of people in any major metropolitan city in the United States that are participating in the food stamp program.


LIBBY: Only 34% of those who are eligible are getting food stamps. And so we have huge needs and it’s hard to think we live in this, you know, gorgeous paradise and that we have people who are hungry…


LIBBY: …and who are working at jobs and still are having trouble in this economy making ends meet. So if you look at even that one issue of hunger, how can I do something about hungry people, you have many different options. You have everything from San Diego Senior Services that runs excellent programs for seniors to the food banks that I mentioned to the Hunger Coalition that is an advocacy group that is working to change the laws and to get as many people as possible enrolled in food stamps and other kinds of subsidy programs.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear from some of our callers. Kathy is calling from La Mesa. Good morning, Kathy, and welcome to These Days. Brooke is – Brooke is calling from Cardiff? Good morning, Brooke.

BROOKE (Caller, Cardiff-By-the-Sea): Hi.


BROOKE: Good morning. So my comment, I work – I’m back onto the nonprofit sector and have done a bunch of research in the area myself and my passion was environment and I’ve done a lot of environmental activism and my sort of guideline for choosing what to get involved with and work for and who to volunteer with is about, you know, is it a systemic solution that these groups are working on or are they bandaiding a current problem. So hunger’s a good example. I mean, obviously, we need to feed people that are hungry and feed them for the short term but I’m really passionate about giving my time and energy to organizations that are trying to solve the problem at a deeper level and so that’s sort of investing in the future that way.

CAVANAUGH: So, Brooke, where do you give your time and energy? What programs do you think hit the heart of the problem?

BROOKE: Ooh, that’s a good one. I have a lot of favorites. So one that’s a favorite of mine is called Kiva. It’s a microfinance type organization…


BROOKE: …that you give microloans to people all over the world and that helps with poverty without, you know, you’re not giving a cash handout, you’re not giving, you know, just, you know, the short term but you’re allowing people to make a living themselves and giving them an opportunity to create their own self-sufficiency and livelihood…

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

BROOKE: …and therefore…

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that. And thanks for your call, Brooke. I really appreciate it. Kathy is calling us from La Mesa now. Hi, Kathy. Welcome to These Days.

KATHY (Caller, La Mesa): Thank you very much. Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, what’s your story?

KATHY: My story is I live in Scripps Ranch, I’m a licensed clinical social worker so I’m very familiar with giving back but I noticed in my own community that there were no services for those of my friends and neighbors who wanted to age in place. So we have a little community newsletter that I placed an article in about a year ago saying, hey, if you want to age in place in Scripps Ranch, let’s meet at my house. And…

CAVANAUGH: Now that means people who want to stay in their homes even though they may have trouble getting around and doing things for themselves?

KATHY: Absolutely. People who want to stay at home and maybe just need a little bit of help and don’t necessarily want to or need to move to assisted living. And so I had 32 people crowd into my living room to learn more about how they could do this and a year later we’ve incorporated and we’ve got activities at our community center, we’re running a lecture series calling – called “Aging Successfully in Scripps Ranch.” And we’re going to have our first health fair on June 2nd at the Scripps Ranch Library.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for your call, Kathy. I appreciate it. You know, Pat, so here’s one of the 9,000 small nonprofits…

LIBBY: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …in San Diego County.

LIBBY: Yeah, it’s exciting, and I was think – and that sounds like a great project and I was – I wanted to respond, too, to what Brooke was saying earlier. We have great environmental groups here. We have San Diego Coastkeepers, I Love a Clean San Diego, Wildcoast, so we have a lot of nonprofits locally that are working on great, long term environmental solutions, and many others, the river conservancies, I can’t even name them all. I…

CAVANAUGH: You know, Pat, there have been a number of books and articles written recently that correlate between giving of oneself, either your time, you’re volunteering, organizing a group, and finding happiness. And I think that’s a very interesting thing for this day and age. What do you make of those books and those articles?

LIBBY: I think it makes sense. I think people feel better when they give, I really do. And what we have found that’s really interesting is that lower income people tend to give a greater percentage of their income than upper income people do.

CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing.

LIBBY: And I think that is – It is amazing. And I think it’s, again, it’s because people think, you know, there but for the grace of God go I, and so people are really concerned about helping their neighbors, helping one another and helping all of us get through tough times and to preserve, you know, the environments, the arts. There’s so many exciting things that people can get involved in that makes them feel really, really good.

CAVANAUGH: Pat Libby, thank you so much for joining us today.

LIBBY: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Pat Libby is director of the Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research at USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences. And as I said, this is the first in a series of shows we’re planning about San Diegans who are involved in good works and how people become inspired to help others. Please do give us your stories online at Now coming up, there’s a new emphasis on the value of group therapy. We’ll find out about it as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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